The Callapse  
December 20, 2007

The month of October began so well for Jeff Tedfordís Golden Bears. The Bears were fresh off their coronary-inducing win in Eugene over the highly ranked Oregon Ducks, their first win at Oregon in two decades. Cal, 5-0 on the season, had what appeared to be a well times bye week that allowed the banged up Bears to rest for the second half of what would surely be a historic season. Cal would rise to #2 in the nation before it took the field for its sixth game of the year. The Bears hadnít seen such heights since the 1950s.

 

During that 6th game of the season jarring news spread through sections of California Memorial Stadium. #1 LSU had lost. If Cal managed to hold serve against a solid but unspectacular Oregon State team then the Bears would have gone from a 1 win team to number 1 in the country in less than 7 seasons. Alas, it was not meant to be. The Bears lost that game on the final play and their losing quickly snowballed. Their historic season became a historically horrific one. Cal went from 5-0 and #2 in the nation to 6-6 and needing help at the end of the last day of the regular season just to make a bowl game. How did things go so horribly wrong? What caused Calís epic collapse (hereafter referred to as the ďCallapseĒ)?

 

 

How was Cal winning in the first place? What immediately changed?

 

The Bears were a legitimate top five team. They had solidly beaten Tennessee, a team that would go on to win the SEC East. They had the aforementioned win in Eugene against a Ducks team that would find themselves ranked #2 in the nation late in the season until a collapse of their own caused primarily by a season ending injury to their quarterback, Heisman frontrunner Dennis Dixon. This was not the 2005 Bears who had reached the top 10 by starting the season ranked and beating up on a desert tray of opponents for five weeks. Calís ranking was legit.

 

The Golden Bears were winning by playing in a way that loosely resembles a football version of Don Nelsonís Golden State Warriors (as an aside, I never thought Iíd see the day when the Warriors were the best team I followed). Relying on speed and athleticism, the Bears made up for being outplayed up front with big plays, a high scoring offense, and a mediocre defense that excelled at creating turnovers.

 

The losing started when the Bears stopped winning the turnover battle. The 5-0 Bears were among the nationís leaders in turnover differential. They caused more than 2 more turnovers than they committed per game. The Bears that finished 1-6 reversed that number.

 

When the Bears were winning, they were scoring a lot of points. It wasnít a big problem to allow 25 Ė 30 points when scoring 45. It became a much bigger problem when the turnover differential flipped, the big plays stopped coming, and the Cal side of the scoreboard now only showed half of what it used to.

 

The Roots of Mediocrity:

 

Football games are won in the trenches. This is a fundamental tenant of football and yet one that is often overlooked by fans. If you want to know what makes Tom Brady put up such gaudy numbers, just take a look at how clean his jersey is. Rich Gannon went from career journeyman to NFL MVP because he got impeccable protection. Below we look at the 2007 Cal Bearsí mediocre line play and other causes of the mediocre season.

 

1. Defensive Line

 

Calís defensive line spent much of the season getting pushed back into its own linebackers. The basis of Calís defense under coordinator Bob Gregory is to stop the run and force teams to complete a large number of short yardage passes to move down the field and score, with the theory being that sometime the opposing team is bound to give up a sack or throw an interception. Plus itís hard to consistently pick up first downs when youíre in 3rd and 7 all the time. But this yearís Cal defensive line didnít come close to stopping the run nor did they pressure the passer. They didnít make tackles behind the line of scrimmage or anywhere else for that matter.

 

Calís run defense has been putrid much of this season. Championship teams stop the run. This yearís #1 going into the championship game is Ohio State; the Buckeyes are 4th in the nation in yards per carry (ypc) allowed. OSU gives up 2.5 ypc on the season. Their opponent, LSU, is 20th giving up 3.1 ypc. Last yearís national champion, Florida, gave up 2.8 ypc which placed them 7th in the country.

 

Cal gives up 3.9 ypc which doesnít even break the top 50 in the 119 team D1A. This is the latest result of a degrading Cal defensive line. Last yearís Bears gave up 3.7 ypc. The 2005 Bears yielded 3.3 ypc. The 2004 Golden Bears were 7th in the nation at 2.6 ypc allowed. Not coincidentally, that 2004 team finished the regular season ranked #4 in the country. The 2004 team had run stuffing stud defensive tackles Lorenzo Alexander and Brandon Mebane. As Alexander and then Mebane moved on to the NFL, Calís run defense suffered a precipitous decline. Alexander and Mebane were never replaced. This yearís abomination of a defensive line featured a number of ďhybridĒ defensive linemen who moved between end and tackle, ably manning neither position.

 

But the problems extended well beyond rush defense. Cal ranked an abysmal 76th in the nation in sacks per game and a pathetic 110th in tackles for a loss per game. Both marks were dead last in the PAC10. While defense, like every part of football, is a team effort, these deficiencies can mostly be laid at the feet of the defensive line.

 

The defensive line should be the source of a teamís pass rush. The top 22 players in sacks per game were defensive linemen. 5 different PAC10 schools were represented in the top 22. Cal was not one of those schools. One quarter of Calís sacks came from a linebacker, Zach Follett. Follett missed two games and parts of others with a neck injury. Unfortunately Follett was the teamís only pass rushing threat. The Cal defensive line had a total of 10 sacks on the season, led by Tyson Alualuís 2.5.

 

It wasnít just quarterbacks on pass plays; Calís defensive line couldnít tackle anyone behind the line of scrimmage. Maybe it was because they never got past the line of scrimmage. Nationally, twenty of the top 25 players in tackles for a loss per game were defensive linemen. Unfortunately, only one of the top 100 players in the nation this statistical category was a Cal Bear (Follett) and he wasnít a defensive lineman. Calís diminutive cornerback SydíQuan Thompson had 3 TFL. That was more than frequent defensive line starters like Matthew Malele (1.5 TFL) and Mika Kane (2.0). In fact, only two Cal defensive linemen had more TFL than Thompson: Cody Jones (5.0) and Tyson Alualu (3.5).

 

The problems went further than just tackles for a loss. Calís defensive line just flat didnít tackle anyone anywhere. The teamís leading tackler was a defensive back. The teamís 5 leading tacklers were 3 linebackers, a safety, and a cornerback. A cornerback should not have more tackles than every defensive lineman on the roster. Thompson, the aforementioned 5í10 180 pound cornerback, had 21 more tackles than the leading tackler on the defensive line (Alualu) and more than double the tackles of the second leading tackler on the defensive line (Kane).

 

In critical man-up situations, 4th downs, Cal was atrocious. The Bears were tied for 99th in preventing 4th down conversions.

 

A defense only plays 11 players at a time. Of the top 11 tacklers on the team, only one was a defensive lineman. Thatís just pathetic.

 

Matthew Malele was called the senior leader of the defensive line. Chris Conte was a true freshman part time starter cornerback. Conte had exactly twice as many tackles as Malele. Something is very wrong with that reality.

 

2. Offensive Line

 

The decline of the offensive line has been more subtle and harder to track with readily available statistics. However, the decline is very real and is a substantial reason for the offenseís struggles.

 

Despite all the attention paid to Tedfordís quarterbacks, his offenses have always been balanced and have usually featured quite a bit of power running. At its height, Calís offensive line paved the way not only for a first round NFL draft pick quarterback but also for a dominant running game. Led by mammoth steamrollers like Ryan OíCallahan, the 2004 Cal offensive line blew opponents off the ball. That season Cal led the nation with 6.1 ypc. In 2005 Cal had a frequently inept passing attack which allowed teams to load up on the running game but the line still dominated to the tune of 5.9 ypc which placed Cal 2nd in the nation behind only USCís Heisman backfield and ahead of Vince Young, Cedric Benson, and the rest of the national champion Texas Longhorns.

 

The 2007 Cal Bears attained a respectable 4.8 ypc, which placed them 21st in the country. However, respectable is not the standard to which coach Michalczikís offensive lines strive. This is especially true when considering that Cal came into the season with a highly touted passing game (featuring Heisman hopeful Desean Jackson, 3 time conference player of the week quarterback Nate Longshore, and what some called the best core of wide receivers in the nation) which should have allowed for more running room as defenses keyed on the pass.

 

The run blocking weakness of Calís line was especially apparent in short yardage situations, particularly near the goal line. Time after time Cal would try to pound out the 1 needed yard and time after time Cal would be stopped short. On the season Cal was in a 13 way tie for 56th in the country in 4th down conversion percentage. For Cal, many of these attempts came in 4th and short and 4th and goal situations. Cal simply could not cash in. Cal also had issues with 3rd down conversions, finishing 38th in the nation and almost as close to dead last as to first. The third down statistic shows not only a failure to pick up 3rd downs but also a failure to pick up sufficient yardage on 1st and 2nd downs in order to set up manageable 3rd down situations.

 

Marty Schoettenheimer has said that if you canít get one yard when you need it, you donít deserve to win the game. Cal has been in that one yard situation many times this season, especially during the second half collapse, and seems to have failed more often than not. That is on the offensive line.

 

Some would argue that pass protection was where the Cal offensive line excelled. The raw sack statistics back up that claim. Cal finished tied for 5th in the nation in sacks allowed per game. Some would say that this stat is even more remarkable due to the fact that Cal spent much of the season with a banged up and immobile quarterback, Nate Longshore. However, I believe the opposite to be true. Longshore is one of the main reasons for the low number of sacks allowed and that the pass protection was nowhere near as good as this statistic makes it seem.

 

Longshore is superb at not getting sacked. Be it changing pass protections pre-snap, stepping away from rushers, breaking the grasp of would-be sackers, or simply throwing the ball away instead of taking a sack, Longshore knows how to not go down with the ball unless absolutely necessary. This observation is backed up by looking at sack statistics with Longshore in the game against similar stats when his backup, the mobile Kevin Riley, is under center. Longshore started and played the vast majority of 11 games this season. In those 11 games he took a total of 6 sacks. Four of Longshoreís opponents ranked in the top 15 in the country in sacks per game so he wasnít exactly facing Calís pass rush. Riley played the entirety of one game (against one of the best pass rushes in the country) and a series or two of another (against the not-so-fearsome pass rush of Louisiana Tech) and took 4 sacks. On the season Longshore took one sack every 63 pass attempts; Riley took one every 9 pass attempts. Riley is easily the more mobile quarterback and thus should be able to run away from tacklers. Yet Riley gets sacked seven times as often as Longshore. The true pass blocking performance of the Cal offensive line is probably somewhere in between the sack rates of the two quarterbacks. Unfortunately I was not able to find any statistics on quarterback hurries and other measures of pass rush beyond sacks that could lend more insight.

 

Also adding to this puzzle is the issue of max protect packages. Coach Jeff Tedford puts great value on protecting his quarterbacks and will go to max protect even if it means only having two eligible receivers running routes on a pass play. Many coaches do not protect their quarterback at all costs like this and as a result Calís sacks allowed statistics are somewhat skewed.

 

Overall, Calís offensive line was not a weakness but not a strength. It was nowhere near the dominant unit of years past. In years past the offensive line could single-handedly win games. In one memorable example (Cal hosting Oregon in 2004) Cal trailed at halftime and had no healthy receivers remaining. That day at halftime the offensive line went to coach Tedford and asked for the opportunity to win the game. Cal pounded the football for much of the second half and pulled out the win. In the second half of this season, every time the offensive line has been given the chance to win the game they have failed.

 

3. The Secondary

 

Calís secondary was another unit that was another unit that failed to make plays. Time and time again they failed to look back at the football and were always looking to make the tackle after the catch rather than trying to prevent the catch or, better yet, intercept the pass. Maybe it had to do with all the times they had to tackle running backs. Only one Bear at any position had more than a single interception on the season Ė Hampton with 2. Cal had a meager 10 interceptions on the season, placing them in a tie for 86th in the country. Calís secondary produced a pathetic 6 interceptions. Nationally, 24 defensive backs had at least that many interceptions on their own. Cal also allowed 16 touchdowns through the air and had the 56th ranked pass efficiency defense in the country. Part of this was due to a lack of pass rush, part due to defensive backs having to worry way too much about stopping the run, but a good chunk is because of big cushions and a lack of plays on the ball.

 

4. Turnovers

 

One of the core principles of Jeff Tedfordís offense is ball control. Running backs coach Ron Gould has told his charges that dropping the ball is akin to dropping their own mothers. Cal quarterbacks are similarly drilled on not making game turning mistakes. Yet Cal was in the bottom half of college football in both fumbles lost and total turnovers lost.

 

Aside from stopping the run, generating turnovers is perhaps the most fundamental element of Bob Gregoryís defenses. The Bears finished in a 13 way tie for 53rd in the nation in generating turnovers. Cal was actually strong in recovering fumbles, getting at least one in every game except against UW (and in that game, Cal did recover a fumble but the referees conveniently called a lateral that went 4 yards backwards an incomplete pass) but was weak on interceptions which is where most turnovers tend to come. 

 

5. Injuries

 

Like just about every football team out there, Cal suffered a number of injuries to key players. Star receiver and punt returner Desean Jackson spent the first several weeks of the season fighting a thumb injury. Defensive tackle Matt Malele missed a few games with injury. Defensive end Rulon Davis managed to play in only five games due to a number of injuries. Star linebacker Zach Follett missed two games and parts of others with a neck stinger. Other part time players like running back and special teams coverage team specialist Jahvid Best and tight end Cameron Morrah missed time with various injuries and most of the regulars were banged up at one time or another.

 

The only position devastated by injury was placekicker. Cal was counting on field goal kicking being a strength this season with Tom Schneider entering his 4th year as the starting kicker. Schneider had been below par for his first two seasons before developing into a very reliable kicker his junior season, going 13/15 on kicks of less than 50 yards and 15/20 overall. Schneider was on track to become Calís all-time leading scorer if his senior season went according to plan. Alas, Schneider suffered a mysterious muscle pull during warm-ups before the first game of the year and never overcame the injury. This put the onus on the foot of fourth year walk-on Jordan Kay, who started well but by midseason was more likely to miss than make anything but the shortest of field goals. With all the close games Cal suddenly found itself in after its 5-0 start, the inability to make field goals or to be able to try them with any confidence proved costly.

 

There were only two injuries which coincided with Calís sudden and drastic downfall. One was to rover Marcus Ezeff, who had made the game clinching hit in Eugene to beat the Ducks and vault Cal to 5-0 and #2 in the nation and did not play again until seasonís end. The other injury, the one focused on by fans and media alike, was to quarterback Nate Longshore.

 

Longshore suffered an ankle injury near the end of the Oregon game, an injury that was more severe than Cal let on for much of the 2nd half of the season. After being held out of the Oregon State game (which gave him 3 weeks between games), Longshore came back and played well against UCLA until the final minutes. As the season wore on, Longshoreís performances followed a similar script: he would do well early and then continue to do well as long as he wasnít hit much. As he took a pounding (but rarely a sack, he managed to avoid those even with the bum ankle) he was no longer able to push off and he would make some uncharacteristically erratic throws.

 

Longshoreís injury was not the root cause of Calís fubar season. It was the tipping point. With a healthy Longshore, Cal was able to get the ball into the hands of its numerous playmakers and avoid turnovers. With Longshore hurt or out, Cal could no longer simply outscore and out-not-make-mistakes opponents and the fundamental flaws in the team came to the forefront.

The bottom line is that regardless of who starts at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver next year, Cal has to greatly improve in the trenches and the secondary if it is to have a national contender that is not easily tipped back to mediocrity.

  

Data sources used:

-         NCAA

-         Yahoo!

-         Cal

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